Houston Cinema Arts Festival
Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.
But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.
If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.
Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.
Usually I grant myself about one review a year to single out moments within a movie that struck me as being truly transcendent. These instances are not always the most bravura examples of filmmaking expertise – those I generally tend to “appreciate” or “understand.” At various occasions in “La La Land,” some fortuitous combination of emotion and craft created some intangible alchemy that left me feeling the power of cinema in a deep, meaningful way.
This sublime feeling is also largely due in part to the fact that while Chazelle works within the “utopian” musical framework, he never succumbs to the naïveté or simplicity often associated with the genre. “La La Land” is a film about love, art and the love of art. The two leads are artists determined to make it in a town where, as Sebastian puts it, “they worship everything and value nothing.” Their professional, personal and romantic victories are all the sweeter to savor because the film never downplays the nerve they have to keep trying and the obstacles that they face. In a town where far too many accept success as the fulfillment of dreams, Mia and Sebastian’s determination to win by the rules they set for themselves is tremendously gratifying.
Where Chazelle does stumble somewhat, however, is in a little bit of over-identification with these characters. He shares with Mia a great knowledge of cinema history. Her apartment is decked with vintage Hollywood posters, and she baristas on the Warner Bros. lot amidst historic set pieces (which she dutifully recognizes). Mia is an ambitious aspiring actress, one who finds more satisfaction in writing a personal one-act play than doing another soul-crushing audition for an embarrassing episodic TV drama. She’s a mismatch for her era, in other words.
Throughout “La La Land,” Chazelle tips his hat to the rich legacy of Golden Age studio cinema that inspires him, often times in quite obvious homage. He’s so busy sharing his watchlist, though, that he hamstrings himself from building on their influence. The film’s strength in knowledge moves from its baseline to an upper limit, approaching the bounds of gimmickry.
As for Sebastian, Chazelle shares a bit of a Messiah complex with this jazz pianist idealistically claiming he can save a dying art form. Something that once belonged to the people is now in danger of becoming elitist and inaccessible. Without their singular vision, pure and true jazz will perish as we know it – or worse, become transmuted into nothing more than a samba and tapas bar. This is a tricky strait to navigate because, admittedly, this level of verve and self-confidence is what gives Chazelle the cojones to make a film like “La La Land” in the first place.
Sebastian’s desire to save the art form feels reactionary and lacking in a vision for the future, not entirely unlike Chazelle’s stance towards the cinematic musical. It’s a joy to watch both of them play and perform because their passion and commitment is evident. Yet with both eyes darting towards the rearview mirror so frequently, how steady is the course ahead? B+ /